MONTGOMERY, Ala. — President Donald Trump’s endorsement and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s money carried their preferred candidate over the first hurdle in Alabama’s Senate race Tuesday.
But the results showed why the second hurdle will be much tougher to clear.
Sen. Luther Strange, the national Republicans’ preferred candidate, topped Rep. Mo Brooks to finish second Tuesday and advance to a runoff against controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
But Moore was the clear first-place finisher, earning 39% of the vote, compared to 31% for Strange and 19% for Brooks, with 95% of precincts’ results tallied.
Moore and Strange will now face off in a September 26 runoff to determine who will face Doug Jones — who cruised through Tuesday’s Democratic primary — in the December special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former seat.
Strange, previously Alabama’s attorney general, was appointed to fill the seat in February by former Gov. Robert Bentley. That Strange’s office was investigating Bentley, who resigned amid a sex scandal shortly after appointing Strange, provided fodder for Moore and Brooks to question the propriety of his selection.
Strange’s competitors also bashed him over McConnell’s support — and the millions in television advertising from McConnell-aligned groups, the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, poured into the race.
They also seized on a split between Trump and McConnell over health care — with Trump bashing the powerful Senate majority leader on Twitter for failing to shepherd the GOP’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare through the chamber.
At his election night party in Montgomery, Moore said he would “defeat this Washington elitist crowd out of Washington.”
He said the efforts of “the silk-stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama have failed.”
And then he took square aim at McConnell.
He said he wanted the other primary contenders “to join with me to defeat the Washington crowd, led by Mitch McConnell, who attempted to defy the vote of the people of Alabama” by spending millions on TV ads bashing Moore and Brooks.
Moore predicted that “the most negative campaign ads in the history of Alabama” will be aired against him by pro-Strange groups, and said it’s up to voters to reject them.
“Will they choose a voice for Alabama or a voice for the Washington elite? It’s very clear,” he said.
Moore also offered a glimpse of his religious-themed rhetoric at his party Monday, where, unlike most election night events, no alcohol was served.
“We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country and on this campaign,” he said. “We must be good again before we can be great. And we will never be good without God.”
On the campaign trail, Strange is sticking close to Trump — not McConnell.
“The President’s endorsement says it all,” Strange told CNN. “The people of Alabama want someone who will support the President’s agenda. That’s what I’m running on, and for him to say he wants me in Washington as a partner is a critical factor.”
And in congratulating him for advancing to the runoff, both the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC and the NRSC emphasized his support from Trump.
“We are proud to have strongly supported President Trump’s No. 1 ally in this race, and we believe the President’s support will be decisive as we head into the next phase of this campaign, which Sen. Strange will win in September,” said Steven Law, the former McConnell chief of staff and Senate Leadership Fund president.
“President Trump’s pick for Senate successfully advanced to the run-off election, and we are confident he will be elected to remain in the Senate come December,” said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the NRSC chairman for the 2018 election cycle.
If Moore wins the September runoff, his history of controversial stands in favor of his understanding of Christianity and its role in public life could become a major headache for Senate Republicans.
Moore is known for being stripped of his Supreme Court seat in 2003 for refusing to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments.
He was elected Alabama’s chief justice again in 2013, but suspended in 2016 for refusing to enforce the US Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
He also in 2006 argued in an op-ed that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, should not be in Congress because he is Muslim.
His hard-line views on social issues were on display Monday night: Moore said the military needs to train “to fight wars, not for social experiments and transgenderism and feel-good stuff that’s going on.”
He also said that by failing to keep loaded guns at home, “you’re not doing what God would have you do and protecting your children.”
At one point, Moore reached into his briefcase and pulled out laminated pages from Joseph Story’s 1833 “Commentaries on the Constitution” and began reading from them to Vox.com reporter Jeff Stein.
“It was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to be favored by the state,'” Moore said, reading from the laminated pages.
His comments came at an open carry gun rights group’s meeting at Mr. Wang’s Restaurant in Homewood on Monday night. While there, Moore complained to the crowd of “forces coming in from the north here and trying to buy your vote” — a clear reference to ads from groups affiliated with McConnell.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Moore wouldn’t commit to supporting McConnell as Senate majority leader.
“I don’t even know Mitch McConnell. I know what he’s done, and I don’t favor Mitch McConnell,” Moore said. “You know, I wouldn’t think I would support Mitch McConnell. I’ve seen him do some very negative advertising — false advertising; attacks on candidates, myself included,” he said, referring to spots aired by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC.
In fact, the only time Moore seemed to take issue with Trump is over his endorsement of Strange. He noted that Trump and McConnell are “feuding” — a reference to Trump’s criticism of the Kentucky senator on Twitter over the Senate’s failure to repeal Obamacare — and called Trump’s endorsement a “bad decision.”
After Moore spoke, Bruce Wade, who leads the Bama Carry group, bashed McConnell-aligned groups’ spending on the race, saying, “think what that money could have done for all the homeless veterans.”
“Alabama voters are a lot smarter than they give us credit for,” Wade said. “And we don’t appreciate them telling us how to vote.”